It is widely accepted in the medical field that the most effective treatment for chronic pain is pharmaceutical interventions, also known as “pills” or “meds.” Believe it or not, some people wake up every day in pain without any identifiable trigger. When a person begins to experience unexplained, widespread pain, they usually ignore it. They think that they have simply pulled a muscle or slept in an uncomfortable position. When the pain continues consistently or intermittently, the person will go to their primary care physician for help. In most cases, the doctor will prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, or opioids to treat the symptoms. Sometimes a diagnosis is made quickly, and other times, it can take years to receive an accurate diagnosis.
Chronic pain disorders are characterized as disorders that cause widespread or isolated acute pain that interferes with one’s daily functioning. It can disrupt one’s ability to work a full-time job, and the ability to care for oneself independently. These disorders are usually progressively degenerative and incurable. Chronic means “long-lasting” or “reoccurring.” These adjectives suggest that the person is doomed to live a life filled with pain and the potential side effects of medications.
Chronic pain can cause mental health issues because it disrupts emotional regulation, sleep patterns, and the ability to concentrate. Lacking the ability to concentrate can make a person feel incompetent because their inability to concentrate results in a lack of productivity.
Furthermore, sleeping with pain is extremely difficult. Muscle spasms, back pain, muscle soreness, joint pain, or headaches diminish a person’s quality of sleep. People that do not get a full 8 hours of sleep or experience a poor quality of sleep are usually less productive and at risk for depression. Becker et al. (2017), found that lack of good quality sleep in older adults is correlated with depression (p. 889). It is important that individuals that experience chronic pain and sleep disruption seriously consider mental health therapy in addition to traditional treatment that involves oral medications or steroid infusions. Traditional treatments focus on treating the physical manifestations of the disease but fail to address the mental health component.
Some studies suggest that in addition to depression, people who experience chronic pain are at risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts. The feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and incompetency can trigger depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts. Racine (2017) published a comprehensive review that notes “that there is strong evidence that chronic pain, regardless of type, is a risk factor for suicidality.” Kathiresan et al., (2020), also found that physical pain is associated with higher rates of depression and other psychiatric issues, including substance use disorders (p. 544).
As mental health professionals and researchers, it is our ethical duty to continue to explore the mind and body connection. We need to continue to research other methods of managing chronic pain. Pain in the physical body may be a manifestation of a deficiency, a hormonal imbalance, or a symptom of an underlying disease. However, simply treating the physical symptoms of the body is limited in scope. Doctors and therapists should educate patients that suffer from chronic pain about the potential benefits of mental health therapy.
A holistic approach to treating chronic pain should include physical therapy or aquatic physical therapy, massages, mental health therapy, possible changes in diet, and traditional pain medications if needed. Anyone that experiences chronic pain understands that it impacts every area of their life, including school, work, intimate relationships, and mental health. A holistic treatment approach and communication between medical and mental health providers is the ideal situation that sets the patient up for the best future outcomes.
Darlene M. Scott, LPC
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Kathiresan, P., Rao, R., Joshi, T., Bhad, R., Bhatnagar, S., Deb, K. S., & Chadda, R. K. (2020). Chronic Noncancer Pain and Opioid Addiction: Diagnostic and
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